Premier League Playback: United’s faltering midfield, ‘Crystal Pulis’ to soar, Boruc’s blunder

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MANCHESTER UNITED’S ENGINE ROOM THE ISSUE

On Sunday in South Wales, Manchester United let in a late goal to Cardiff City as they let another two points slip through their fingers. David Moyes turned away in despair and looked to the ground in disgust.

United didn’t play well, and although it looked like they’d got out of jail with a win until Kim Bo-Kyung’s last-gasp header nicked the Bluebirds a point, the main issue with the reigning champions was in central midfield.

Michael Carrick and Phil Jones, two of United’s more robust and reliable options manning the engine room, were both missing in the fiery cauldron of Wales’ capital city due to injury. And boy, did it show. Marouane Fellaini and Tom Cleverley manned the ship in the center of the park and they were overrun by forever plugging leaks sprung open by newly-promoted Cardiff. Unable to contain, tackle or cajole their team into life from the center of the pitch, Fellaini and Cleverly all too often went for the easy ball and played it safe in possession as the heat maps below show. That stunted United’s attacking impetus and allowed the Bluebirds to garner belief they could fight their way back into the game, Cardiff’s last-gasp equalizer had been coming due to midfield battle being lost.

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Click to enlarge: Marouane Fellaini’s passes vs. Cardiff City. Made no forward passes in the attacking third. (Source: Opta)
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Click to enlarge: Tom Cleverley’s passes vs. Cardiff City. Only one of his 42 passes was a successful forward pass in the opposition half. (Source: Opta)

Even Carrick and Jones have had their critics in recent seasons as United have never fully replaced their illustrious midfield generals of the past. Current players Anderson, Shinji Kagawa and going further back to Owen Hargreaves, they’ve all failed to recreate United’s indestructible machine of Keane, Scholes, Butt and the marauding menaces of Paul Ince and Bryan Robson before them.

Moyes needs to add a midfield enforcer to his squad in January, as United are too often relinquishing the middle third to teams who have hungrier, more tenacious and more committed central midfielders willing to run themselves into the ground for the crest on their shirts. I just don’t see that from any of the current crop of United’s central men, including Fellaini and Cleverley after their lackluster displays against Cardiff.

Fellaini and Cleverley aren’t bad players but they’re both afraid of failure and scared of taking people on. Between them they didn’t even attempt a dribble on Sunday and for so long United have had perfect dovetailing central midfielders, when one attacks, the other sits and vice versa. Anybody who watched Keane and Ince in their prime will tell you how beautiful that is to watch. The duo of Fellaini and Cleverley played together in the middle for the first time at Cardiff and you could tell that, they had no cohesion, no link and were all out sea.

Will they ever get the chance to shine in central midfield together again? After that combined performance, probably not. Back to the drawing board for Moyes.

Premier League Schedule – Week 12

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-0 Southampton Recap and watch here
Cardiff 2-2 Manchester United Recap and watch here
Everton 3-3 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-2 Swansea Recap and watch here
Hull 0-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Man City 6-0 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Newcastle United 2-1 Norwich Recap and watch here
Stoke 2-0 Sunderland Recap and watch here
West Brom 2-2 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Ham 0-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here

RED CARD CONTROVERSY

Let’s break down three controversial moments from the weekend, as two red cards were dished out incorrectly and one should have been given in the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool.

Some of these decisions were incredibly bad, and given the exasperating precedent set by referees chief Mike Riley last week — when he apologized to West Brom manager Steve Clarke for a last gasp penalty handed to Chelsea that cost the Baggies a win — plenty of PL managers will be hoping to receive an apology via the post.

Mr. Riley, get your quill and parchment ready, you’ll have some serious apologizing to do this weekend after three horrendous mistakes. The floodgates have opened, Riley should’ve never apologized as now he’ll never stop apologetically nodding his head in agreement and offering his hand out in reconciliation.

Too many of the big decisions are being called incorrectly as referees come under more criticism in the PL. Here’s my take on three of the worst calls (because, in truth, there were so many more) this weekend.

  • Wes Brown’s red card vs. Stoke City – NO

The phantom tackle of Brown baffles me every time I see it. It isn’t, wasn’t and will never be a red card. Gus Poyet was incensed at the decision as he tore his puffy coat off in frustration, screamed at the officials and stomped his feet in frustration. Brown slid in and made a perfect, yet slightly lunging tackle. He was in control as he disposed Stoke’s Charlie Adam and may have faintly grazed the Scotsman as he slide through. This cost Sunderland any chance of grabbing a point or more at the Britannia.

  • Yannick Bolasie’s red card vs. Hull City – NO

Yes Bolasie does go over the top and lunges into this one, but he’s on the edge of the box and scrapping for every ball as two newly-promoted teams battle for a crucial three points 12 minutes from time. Out of all three, this decisions is the most sane, but it still isn’t right. Bolasie slips before the tackle is made, Jake Livermore is already going to ground and has also raised his foot and at worst it’s a yellow card.

  • Kevin Mirallas’ potential red card vs. Liverpool – YES

This has to be one of the worst tackles I’ve seen in the modern era. Yet Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas somehow stayed on the pitch as he lunged with a high foot and aimed to decapitate Luis Suarez’ right leg at the knee. The ball was bouncing up as the two players clashed by Suarez got to the ball first, knocked it away and was clattered recklessly into by Mirallas wild and dangerous right foot with his studs showing. An instant red card was the only option here. How it wasn’t… I’ll never know. Seems like Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers agrees.

“I thought Mirallas should have been sent off. He caught him [Suarez] on the back of his knee and that can end your career. It was awful jumping in like that.” Mirallas also agreed… wait, what? Straight up, here’s the evidence.

We can’t finish this section without the highlights to the Merseyside derby, I asked if that was “the best Everton vs. Liverpool battle in history?”  Judge for yourself by watching the highlights below.

CRYSTAL PULIS – WILL THE EAGLES SOAR TO SAFETY?

Everyone expects us to get relegated and it will be nice to prove people wrong. I like climbing hills and this will be a tough job but one I will relish – New Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis

Palace dispatched Hull City 1-0 on Saturday, watch above, as the Eagles lifted themselves off the bottom of the table as their new manager arrives amongst a sea of optimism.

Earlier on Saturday the South London side announced former Stoke City boss Tony Pulis is their new manager. I believe that’s a fantastic decision. Just three points from safety after that huge win, Pulis’ side has given themselves a fighting chance of climbing out of the relegation zone. Expect them to grab it with both hands.

This is a fact: Palace will be a horrendous side to play against for the rest of the season. Think Pulis’ Stoke City on steroids. The Eagles have something to prove, as does Pulis after his seven year spell at the Potters came to an abrupt end last season when he failed to kick them on to the next level. That burning desire to prove everyone wrong will create destruction and distress for every team they come up against in their remaining 26 PL games of the season. The Eagles aren’t ready to land in English soccer’s second-tier, in fact, they’ve yet to even take off in the top flight. You’ve been warned, Pulis’ first game in charge away at Norwich will showcase that.

ROAD WINS SEAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

If Manchester City aim to keep obliterating teams at home, watch above and shield your eyes Spurs fans, but struggle to snatch a point on the road, a second PL title in three years won’t be heading to the Etihad Stadium this season.

On Sunday City smashed Tottenham — I mean, completely knocked them out of the stadium and into the parking lot — 6-0 as they flexed their title credentials impressively. But if they keep losing on the road to basement boys and continue to augment their splendid home displays by hemorrhaging points on their travels, Pellegrini’s dream of delivering a Championship are dumbfounded.

The stats back my slightly snarky statement up as City have started this season with a poor record of W1-D1-L4 on the road. In the last 10 seasons, no PL champion has lost more than five games away from home in their title winning season… City have already lost four matches from six on the road this campaign.

What is the answer I hear you cry?

Plenty of foreign stars feeling intimidated in hostile atmospheres across a plethora of rough and ready English cities could be a reason. Another could simply be that they prefer to score early and settle their nerves in games and away from home the opposition are more likely to have a go at City and score first. The Citizens resilience is then called into question and so far they’ve failed to hit back when they’ve been dealt a blow away from home. If other sides get a foot hold at home against City, they might as well pull their goalkeeper and put the handbrake on because Pellegrini’s men look devoid of ideas when they go behind. When they’re on form Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo’s burgeoning partnership can rip any team apart, we’ve spoken about that before in PL Playback after City demolished United… it seems as though the duo that initially showed promise has now blossomed into a full-blown goal scoring tandem of tricks, flicks and boat loads of goals. Aguero has 10 goals, Negredo has five and City have 34 goals in 12 games.

But this struggling form away from home has to be addressed and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t a Pellegrini-ism. It’s been going on for years. Many have put City’s struggles on the road down to their new Chilean manager being out of his comfort zone in unfamiliar surroundings at the Britannnia Stadium, Villa Park or the Stadium of Light. What a load of old tosh.

In the four seasons before the current campaign, since City became perennial title contenders, their away record reads as follows.

2012-13 – W9-D6-L4 | 2011-12 – 10-4-5 | 2010-11 – 8-4-7 | 2009-10 – 6-9-4

No team has won the Premier League title having lost four of their first 11 games since 1968… the last team to do that and win the league was… Manchester City. If they pick up their away form and continue to blow teams away at the Etihad, they won’t be far off a historic repeat.

City’s manager Pellegrini isn’t worried by those stats and said the following with a cheeky grin on his face: “I don’t believe in statistics in football. I believe football has some relation with mathematics but not always. If you win all the games from now until the end, maybe we will win the Premier League.”

BORUC, LLORIS RED FACED AS ‘KEEPERS PRESSURIZED TO PLAY

During a debate on the BBC following the weekends action, former Newcastle and England goalscoring legend Alan Shearer had this to say about the new task handed to many PL ‘keepers.

“Goalkeepers are more footballers now than at any other time,” Shearer said. “They’re part of the back four.”

I’m not trying to defend Southampton’s goalkeeper Artur Boruc for his embarrassing blunder, watch above, but his problems have come from being a ‘keeper asked to play the ball with his feet and become a part of the defense, when his main job was always to keep the ball out of the net.

In the modern era, ‘keepers have become a fifth defender and are encouraged by many managers to get involved and keep possession of the ball rather than lump it aimlessly up field every time it’s sent back to them.

On Saturday in Saints’ biggest game of the season so far, Boruc tried three ‘Cruyff turns’ in his own box and lost out to Olivier Giroud who easily tapped home and left an embarrassed and livid Boruc cursing on the floor. That goal put his Southampton side on the back foot and cost them any real chance of upsetting the league-leaders at the Emirates and helping the Saints leapfrog them into top spot. But ever-since Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino arrived at the South Coast club, Boruc has been taking more risks with the ball at his feet and he’s encouraged to do so. If that’s what the manager wants, mistakes like this will happen. Southampton keep the ball better than almost any team in the league and that starts with Boruc’s patient, yet dangerous, build up from the back.

(MORE – FULL PREMIER LEAGUE STANDINGS)

Spurs were also the masters of their own downfall with a goalkeeping error after just 13 seconds against Man City in their humiliating defeat. Hugo Lloris’ mistake was a little different to Boruc’s as he miskicked the ball straight to City’s attackers who then capitalized brilliantly on a skewed clearance. But it was almost as if Lloris held back from giving the ball an almighty punt and was hoping his short kick would find a Spurs teammate and keep the ball in Tottenham’s possession. The Frenchman is the best ‘sweeper-keeper’ in the league and regularly launches off his line to become a defender and play the ball out of danger.

Goalkeepers in the PL should get back to doing that.

Keeping it out of their goal and giving it a bloody good whack upfield to make sure the ball is as far away from danger for as long as possible, that’s their job, right? Yet Boruc and Lloris are encouraged to play from the back by their managers, so mistakes like those they made at the weekend will happen. Ultimately they were bad individual errors but if their sides want possession from the back, ‘keepers shouldn’t be lambasted for giving the ball away or getting caught in possession. Look how often it happens to the outfield players they’re expected to emulate… Think about it.

Still at least Boruc saw the funny side of it… Check out the instagram picture he posted a few hours after the game, the caption says it all. Hilarious. Well, except if you’re a Saints fan…

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Premier League Playback comes out every Monday and takes an alternative look at the weekends action.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.